Zorba the Buddha, Urban (Review)

Zorba the Buddha
(UC Press 2016)

Despite the ubiquity of news coverage in the 1980s, the Osho-Rajneesh movement’s experiment in building a spiritual city out the Oregon desert has for the most part receded from the national memory. It is little more than a quirky footnote to the history of Reagan’s American. There remain a few old enough to remember (when nudged) that guy with all the Rolls Royces. This despite the fact that at the time the creation of Rajneeshpuram (and later the “takeover” of the town of Antelope) was one of the most covered national news stories of its day and the creation of the Oregon commune one of the greatest social experiments of its kind in the history of the United States.

Though the movement attracted a degree scholarship during its early phase in India and initially after coming to America, since the dissolution of the Oregon commune there has been scant academic attention paid to the movement. One exception being Lewis F. Carter’s book Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community, published in 1990 less than five years after last the Rolls left the Bhagwan’s city on a hill. Carter’s book deals almost exclusively with the development and eventual demise of the Oregon commune and its legal aftermath. There has been no book length scholarly examinations of the movement as a whole from Acharya Rajneesh’s earliest years in Bombay to its later transformations and the movements relation to the larger spiritual and global landscapes of the late twentieth century. That is until now with the University of California publication of Hugh Urban’s Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement.

Urban’s book is much more than scholarly history or dry analysis of events. He proposes that the Osho-Rajneesh movement be extended to provide analytical insight into and is emblematic of the processes of globalization and transnationalism. In his introduction Urban suggests that the movement offers “profound insights into the larger processes of globalization and the transnational flow of people, ideas, tourism, and capital in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

Urban is ideally suited to the subject. His c.v. includes numerous articles on tantra and new religious movements. He has written previous books on tantra, the Church of Scientology and, of a particular relevance here, 2006’s Magia Sexualis exploring the history of esoteric sexuality in the west. Urban notes in his introduction that there have been no shortage of books written about the movement, however these fall into one of two camps—admirers or detractors; followers or ex-followers. “My own view,” Urban writes, “is that this guru and the movement he inspired are far too interesting and complicated to be reduced to either of these common interpretations.”

Urban begins with the movement’s beginnings in India with all its anti-establishment controversy and European expat attention. From there he moves through a fairly detailed discussion of the early promise and successes of the Oregon experiment through to its horrific denouement. Not stopping there, he continues with a nuanced analysis of the post-Oregon (Pune II) phase and Rajneesh’s transition to Osho. Throughout, Urban’s analysis puts the movement into a international context as trends of globalization and transnational capitalism that reshaped the world the world in the later half of the twentieth century.

Of particular note is the author’s analysis of the tensions that arose after Osho’s death in 1989. These centered around the Pune Ashram (now Meditation Resort) and the vast treasure trove of intellectual property Osho left behind—600+ published books, Hindi discourses, audio/video recordings, meditations, and original artwork. Though frequently the subject of online discussion, there has been little or no academic attention to this period of the movement and what it says about national/cultural identity and its reaction to (or against) the very transnational “state” of which Osho was so emblematic. The infrastructure that Osho left as his succession plan, a circle of “elders”, very quickly fractured and dissolved into distinct factions. The divisions broke down primarily along lines of East and West—long-time Indian disciples arguing for a universal “free” Osho available to all and European/American devotees rigorously moving to protect the intellectual property and trademark the legacy.

The fight over legacy is not an uncommon event following the departure of a charismatic leader. In the modern world, this fight has all too often played out in the domain of international copyrights and ownership appeals (the litigious squabbling over Aleister Crowley’s works is another good example). The Osho-Rajneesh movement was born in India and much of Rajneesh’s early talks were a counter to prevailing Indian religious and political ideologies. Once he became a global phenomenon and broke his period of silence, he began to divest his philosophy of the visible vestigial remnants of its origins—the red cloths, the mala, the name Bhagwan, etc.

OSHO International Foundation, Inc., who now run the Pune Resort and assert control over the media assets have continued the de-nationalizing. The ashram is now a resort. Sannyas initiation is now voluntary and downplayed. Reflecting the post-nationalism of the Osho movement, the fight over his legacy has transpired in courts in diverse countries. Under accusations of pillaging India’s intellectual legacy, the battle has showed the tensions between the concept of universal non-ownership and complex international copyright laws. Indian sannyasins such as Swami Anand Arun and Ma Neelam have sought to preserve his legacy and vision, while Western sannyasins have battled the remaining Inner Circle members, represented in the now Zurich-based OIF, in legal proceedings in the USA and Europe. It seems to reflect the tensions of modernity, this dilemma of ownership versus the universality of a spiritual teacher.

Urban presents an compelling analysis of the Osho-Rajneesh movement, its fit with global trends endemic of the latter half of the twentieth century, as well its formative impact on the development of “New Age” cosmology. Though remaining one view, it’s an interesting perspective from which to view the entirety of teacher (Acharya Rajneesh) to religious phenom (the Bhagwan) to commercial asset (Osho, Inc.).


On the Edge
(CreateSpace 2015)

Framing my reading of Zorba the Buddha, I chose to read several of the first-person accounts written by Osho sannyasins that had been collecting in my “on deck” pile: My Dance with a Madman, Anand Subhuti; Osho: The First Buddha in the Dental Chair, Swami Devageet; Osho, India and Me, Jack Allanach (Krishna Prem); and On the Edge: Living with an Enlightened Master, Yoga Punya. I’ve read a number of books written by Osho-Rajneesh (neo-)sannyasins over the years. They have ranged from the die-hard disciples within the inner circle, Diamond Days with Osho by Ma Prem Shunyo, to the disaffected, the very early The God That Failed by Osho bodyguard Hugh Milne. “Admirers” and “detractors” respectively, Urban would say. Of those memoirs written subsequent to the Oregon episode I prefer those in the middle ground—disciples who remain through their master’s transition to Osho while at the same time coming to their own personal terms with the meaning of the preceding events. After reading in tight succession, these four titles fall into an interesting hierarchy of experience and access. All four were authored by long-term sannyasins who remained connected to the movement or at least personally to the concept of Osho.

Devageet was Osho’s dentist for many years and thus had a unique perspective and a high degree of access. In late Pune I, Oregon and Pune II, Osho had frequent (often daily) dental sessions and thus spent a considerable amount of time with the author. I did find the book a little flat. Additionally a degree of discomfort at the health affects of habitual nitrous oxide use lingered at the back of my mind throughout.

Anand Subhuti and Krishna Prem worked together in the press office for some time. The former’s background shows through and My Dance is clear and concise reportage of his time in Pune and Oregon. His run-ins with Ma Anand Sheela during his time at the Oregon commune were of particular interest in the direct glimpses they provide on her personality.

I very much enjoyed Krishna Prem and Yoga Punya books. The former writes in the language of poetry and his book is profoundly evocative of India and the complex world around Osho. The latter’s work is also interesting for the author’s use of language and time. It’s easy to see that Punya is an amateur author, but that naiveté actually makes the work more compelling. She also has an interesting perspective regarding time and interweaves moments across it in a way that, surprisingly, works very well to sculpt her experiences with the variations in the movement.

Support independent booksellers: If you are interested in any of the titles discussed above, Osho Viha is a great source.